They clog customers’ mailboxes, yet some retailers swear by them. So do catalogues still have a place in retail marketing, or is there a better way?
We’re about to enter that time of year when mailboxes groan under the combined weight of Christmas catalogues and flyers. Not a bad time to reflect upon the marketing and environmental impact of retail catalogues generally.
The annual stats are staggering. Over the course of a full year, eight billion unaddressed flyers, leaflets and catalogues are stuffed into Australian letterboxes*. That’s up to 1000 pieces of junk mail per Australian household. More than $2 billion** is spent producing these items. And then there are the tens of thousands of man-hours expended in planning, poring over and printing paper that often travels straight from the letterbox to the garbage bin. So why do retailers and other businesses keep doing it? And when are consumers going to say “enough”?
The answer to the first question is sometimes no more compelling than “that’s what we did last year”. When businesses plan out their advertising and promotional calendars, it’s natural to match up this year’s activities versus last year’s at the same time. The story goes that you have to make your “like-for-like” sales targets (this year’s sales versus last year’s), you don’t want a “calendar gap”, and so a catalogue mail drop is slotted in to the program once again.
If you’re a retailer who is a “heavy user” of catalogues, it’s like being on a drug, and the habit can be tough to kick for fear of missing sales. Some retailers take their addiction even further, unwittingly gearing their entire organisations around feeding the beast.
Before I get lambasted by catalogue supporters, I should acknowledge two points. Firstly, it is true that catalogue mail drops can generate a lift in sales. But I wonder how much of that is a self-fulfilling prophecy, when so much effort goes into buying for, and producing the catalogue and tying it up with promotion in the store?
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It’s also true that many consumers look forward to the arrival of catalogues in their mailbox. In fact a 2012-13 study (admittedly sponsored by the Australian Catalogue Association) stated that two thirds of consumers expressed a preference for receiving catalogues via letterbox to email-only delivery.
I believe, however, that environmental considerations will soon prompt consumers to put serious pressure on retailers using catalogues. It may well progress beyond “no junk mail” stickers to mass public outrage at the environmental cost and sheer waste.
Some smart marketers are already ahead of the curve. Way back in 2009, Paris-based direct marketing agency TBWA/Excel launched its “Mailing Vert” (Green Mailing) service in partnership with a number of printing and logistics firms. Mailing Vert was founded on four principles: to protect the environment; to preserve raw materials and protect natural resources; to track waste and minimise energy consumption; and to measure and offset the ecological impact of every step. Designed mainly for the use of not-for-profit organisations, it’s a great example of the way that catalogue production needs to go.
So before you plan your next retail catalogue, ask yourself one question: is there a better way? Is there a better way of reaching and motivating your customers than using “hard copy spam”? (As one idea, consider newspaper inserts.) And if catalogues are a critical part of your communications program, is there a better way of printing and distribution, so as to be most effective for the least environmental cost?
What would you suggest are some more effective, environmentally friendly retail marketing alternatives to catalogues and flyers?
*Source: Australian Conservation Foundation, Australian Catalogue Association
**Source: Australian Catalogue Association 2012-13 report